Commentary

Overextended Military: Is This the Bush Administration or Clinton Administration II?

By Ivan Eland
February 2, 2002

During his campaign for president, George W. Bush blasted the Clinton/Gore administration for straining the U.S. armed forces with too many deployments overseas and promised to pare those military obligations. Yet in the name of fighting terrorism, he is expanding the U.S. military presence overseas faster than Bill Clinton ever dreamed of doing.

As a result of the war on terrorism, the United States will have a military presence in the Central Asian countries Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgykzstan for the foreseeable future. In addition, the United States is sending military advisors or support to the Philippines, Indonesia and Yemen. According to Condoleeza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, the war in Afghanistan taught the United States that security relationships with countries worldwide — both prominent and obscure — would reap benefits if a crisis occurs. The United States may soon attack targets in Somalia and may even try to take down Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Conversely, only in Bosnia has the Bush administration pushed to cut back U.S. and NATO forces. In short, more than a decade after the Cold War ended, U.S. military presence overseas is still expanding rapidly.

Of course, staunch apologists for the administration will defend its policy flip-flop by arguing that the catastrophic terrorist attacks on U.S. soil justify an expanding U.S. security perimeter. The apologists adopt the military perspective, believing that the United States should always “defend forward” and take the fight to the enemy. In addition, look at what happened when the United States abandoned Afghanistan after the Islamic rebels won their war against the Soviet Union, they say.

In the short-term, it’s true that monstrous terrorist attacks on thousands of civilians deserve a robust military response. In the long-term, in the age of catastrophic terrorism, an extended defense perimeter and repeated interference in the affairs of other nations could reduce U.S. security, rather than enhance it. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the benefits of profligate U.S. interventions overseas have declined and the costs have skyrocketed.

During the Cold War, to check the influence of a rival superpower bent on world domination, a better case could be made for U.S. overseas interventions. The costs of such interventions were actually lower than at present because the presence of nuclear weapons caused the two superpowers to manage conflict carefully — that is, each superpower would intervene only in peripheral areas rather than in regions perceived as vital by the other superpower. Now, the necessity of intervention is much lower and the conflict with radical, suicidal terrorists cannot be managed at all.

In addition, “defending forward” does not work as well against terrorists as it does in conventional wars with nation-states. Terrorists can float from state to state, lurk in the shadows and strike the American homeland when, where and how they choose. In fact, an extended U.S. defense perimeter with its accompanying profligate military interventions can act as a lightning rod for retaliatory attacks by disaffected terrorist groups.

According to the Defense Science Board:

As part of its global power position, the United States is called upon frequently to respond to international crises and deploy forces around the world. America’s position in the world invites attack simply because of its presence. Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.

As a powerful example of this connection between U.S. foreign policy and terrorism, Osama bin Laden’s main reasons for conducting a worldwide war against American targets are 1) the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, which he believes desecrates the holy sites of Islam within its borders, and 2) U.S. support for what he believes is the corrupt and apostate Saudi Arabian government.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment refuses to acknowledge that U.S. interventions have led to almost 50 percent of the world’s terrorist attacks being directed against U.S. targets. But the rest of the world can more objectively assess why the United States is disproportionately attacked. According to a recent survey of political, business, and media elites on five continents, the United States is admired as the land of opportunity and democratic ideals. But a majority of the elites outside the United States said U.S. policies and actions in the world were responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. In contrast, only a small number of U.S. elites thought so.

But in an age of catastrophic terrorism, the Bush administration — contrary to its initial, correct intuition — has followed the advice of those elites and embarked on a dangerous path. Expanding an already extended defense perimeter will actually reduce the security of all Americans rather than enhance it.

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.